ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England (AFNS) --
On the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2013, Royal Air Force Lakenheath received an impromptu visit from a member of the local community and a famed figure in the global scientific community.
Preceding the unexpected visit, RAF Squadron Leader Jerry Neild, the RAF commander, received a late-night call -- an inquiry for a visit on behalf of professor Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, a theoretical physicist and U.S Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, best known for his best-selling book "A Brief History of Time," is a professor at and director of the University of Cambridge's Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. He had previously sought to visit RAF Lakenheath to scatter the ashes of a friend, a retired master sergeant. However, he had been unable to make it. As 2013 came to a close, he found himself available and in good health and contacted the base through his late friend's widow. Despite the late notice, U.S. Air Force and Ministry of Defence personnel made the visit happen.
Hawking arrived on base the following afternoon, greeted by Neild and Col. Mark Slocum, the 48th Operations Group commander, as well as several security forces personnel, who Neild described as "astonished."
Following a windshield tour of the base and a briefing at Radar Approach Control, Hawking visited members of the 48th Maintenance Group in a protected aircraft shelter where he could see one of the Liberty Wing's F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft up close.
"We were in awe of Hawking and were truly honored to meet him," said Master Sgt. Patrick Robison, the 48th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintenance debrief NCO in charge. "The visit lasted less than an hour, but it was an experience that I will always remember."
As the tour came to an end, Hawking even posed for photos with members of the 48th Security Forces Squadron who had waited well after their shifts' end to meet the noted scientist. Neild said the impression he left was clear and that "his reputation and standing was recognized at all levels."
"Having someone as decorated as him take interest in something we, the 48th MXG, maintain and fly here at RAF Lakenheath, is something special," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Angus, the 48th AMXS cann manager.
The 48th Fighter Wing's personnel also left an impression on Hawking, who, according to a message relayed by Neild, said he was taken aback by the intelligence of the Airmen he met and how much responsibility they have to bear.